Open Notes


Clackty clack. One of the ancient joys of writing on typewriters was that everyone knew when you were working, even through some may not have appreciated it. The typewriter would become the only conversation in the room.

I’ve always been motivated by the sound of typewriters. There was a time, when I wanted to motivate myself to write, that I would put on a recording of manual and electric typewriters clacking along. It reminded me of newsrooms I’d worked in, or maybe newsrooms that I’d only imagined. I’ve missed that sound, but only recently have I realized how much.

After nine years (maybe more) of pounding away on several Apple Magic Keyboards, (I tend to wear them out), I’ve switched to a mechanical split keyboard, an ErgoDoz-EZ. It’s louder than the Apple keyboard so again, people know when I’m working. It takes up more room. Not only are the two halves of the split keyboard spread across the width of my desk, but the individual keys are spaced farther apart. My back doesn’t hurt as much because my typing stance is wider and more open. And my hands don’t hurt as much because the keystroke distance and force are closer to the typewriters I learned on. And there is that wonderful clackty-clack. People know when I’m working. Sometimes I keep typing just to hear it.

The Ergo-Dox has ruined me for the Magic Keyboard and for the puny keyboard I have attached to my iPad. Now I’m ready to go fully mechanical on all devices, even my iPad. My hands need the room and my stance needs to be open.

But … not so fast.

I’ve noticed that the Apple Magic Keyboard is a forgiving piece of technology. I could miss keys or scramble letters, and my sentences would come out okay anyway. Not so with the mechanical keyboard.

When using it, I have to say what I mean and mean what I say. It is a lot closer in this way to using a typewriter. A mis-struck key on a typewriter meant you had to start the page over or xxxxx it out. (Usually the latter.) But when computers are our writing partners, they fix our spelling and typing mistakes as they happen. They remember phrases we typed earlier. They think for us, picking up our slack.

I’ve been reading Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, a fascinating book that describes novelists like Stephen King sorting through their first word processor experiences. They describe using word-processing software as an experience more like writing by hand than using a typewriter.

I get it. When writing on screens, you’re more likely to write fluidly, begin in the middle and go toward the end, pick off things to fix at the top of the page or at the bottom. There is a freedom you get that a typewriter can’t offer.

Typing is linear. You put in the paper and you type till you run out of page. I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore because during revisions, I realize that the middle should be at the beginning, and the end wasn’t really the end. The early users of word processors marveled at how they were able to move blocks of text around, and of course there’s that. We take it for granted now. But there’s a deeper change in being able to jump around in your editing, as though you had a pencil hovering over a page, making a notation here, scribbling a word tweak there, lobbing in a new section somewhere else. It’s fluid and not like typing at all.

Another input device I’m using a lot is my Apple Pencil. I can open just about any writing app and start scrawling ideas with my illegible scrawl, and it turns out not to be so illegible. Most of the time, the scrawl becomes perfectly useful text. It brings back the feeling of grabbing a notebook and simply beginning to write. I still do that — I use notebooks every day — but I’m appreciating the merging of the digital and paper worlds.

An old trick: When revising your work, put it in a different font and print it out for markups. Since it looks different, you see it anew. A new trick: Do the same thing, but render the draft as a PDF and mark it up with your Apple Pencil.

Our relationship with writing tools runs deep. It all starts with input.